Paying for Graduate School without Going Broke

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This is the big question for many students: how to pay for graduate school? Four years of funding an undergraduate degree can leave students feeling bogged down by debt. According to FinAid, over 65 percent of students who graduated with a 4-year degree had debt averaging just over $23,000. While some students manage to completely pay for a bachelor’s degree without some form of assistance, many students receive scholarships and grants, in addition to other types of funding. There are options to help you. Let’s start with the basics, although you probably already know some of this from the processes you went through during your undergraduate financial planning.

Federal Aid: You may qualify for federal financial aid. It’s easier now than ever before to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and send it to the U.S. Department of Education, thanks to the online form. You can even find help with the FAFSA form on Twitter (@FAFSA).

One thing you’ll notice is that you’re now listed as independent, which means your parents’ financial information likely won’t be taken into consideration. Before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA, make sure you have these materials nearby: driver’s license, Social Security card, W-2 forms, records of your finances (like bank statements), and perhaps a record of stocks, bonds or any other kind of investment. Also have nearby any records that show any untaxed income, like welfare or social security benefits, TANF, veteran or military benefits, or clergy benefits. If you’re married, you should also have your spouse’s Federal Income Tax Return. If you’re not a United States citizen, have your alien registration card handy. If you own a business or farm, keep those records handy, too.

Types of loans under the Direct Loan Program include: Direct Stafford Loans for undergraduate and graduate students; Direct PLUS Loans with a fixed interest rate of 7.9 percent; and to help after you graduate, Direct Consolidation Loans combine federal education loan debts into one loan.

What’s this SAR form? It’s a Student Aid Report and contains all of that information you entered on the FAFSA form. Review the SAR and send it back so you can be sent a Financial Aid Award. If you named a school on your FAFSA when you submitted it, you’ll be sent a Financial Aid Award. This will break down your financial package and include the types of aid: federal and state aid, scholarship, and other sources.

State Aide: Visit the Education Resource Organizations Directory to learn more.

Private loans: The interest rates and plans vary with private loans. Research carefully.

Grants: These sums of money do not have to be repaid, although many conditions often apply. Federal grants include the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Iraq & Afghanistan Service Grant, and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant. Search within your regional education sources to find local grants. Let’s be honest, though. Free money is hard to come by, so act early with grant applications. To have the best shot at other grants, call the department head of the program you’re most considering for graduate school. Ask him or her how best to find and apply for additional aid. Some professional and trade organizations will keep running lists of grants and scholarships.

Scholarships: The first place you should look is your alma mater. Some schools offer scholarships for graduate degrees if you plan to continue at the same college or university. If you’re looking elsewhere, begin online but beware that some websites relating to higher education are marketing firms that have their best interests in mind, not yours. Here are some resources to consider:

Many schools offer their own scholarships and grants based on merit. Most are listed on an individual school’s website. You may also find it helpful to read books that list scholarships and the best strategies for winning them.

There are certainly some interesting opportunities. For example, The NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship Program awards scholarships to 174 student athletes who achieve in both athletics and academics. And, if you’re studying physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, computational sciences, or environmental sciences, you could be eligible for a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science fellowship. Of course, these are just a couple of the available scholarships.

Teaching assistantships: Schools often tap graduate students to assist professors in the classroom. As Teaching Assistants (TAs), students are given both hands on experience and financial assistance toward tuition and other education-related expenses. Because this varies from school to school, please check your individual institution’s website for more information about available teaching assistantships, their descriptions and deadlines.

Employer: Individual scholarships vary, so check with your employer about what is offered. Find more about Employer Education Assistance.

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Our tuition numbers reflect data collected from the National Center for Education Statistics.

This indicates that a school has an annual tuition of $15,000 or less as reported to the National Center for Education Statistics or based on the school's website.